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'Golden victory'? Islamist forces leave Somali capital

/ Source: The Associated Press

Islamist forces pulled out of many of their bases in the Somali capital of Mogadishu overnight, government and rebel spokesmen said Saturday.

"The information we are receiving is that there is a retreat from the city. This is a golden victory for the Somali people and we are committed to ensure that peace and order is restored to those areas," said government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman.

However, Al-Shabab spokesman Ali Mohamed Rage told a local radio station that the retreat was a tactical withdrawal to enable a counterattack.

He said they would not be leaving any other regions of southern Somalia.

"The retreat by our forces is only aiming to counterattack the enemy. People will hear happy news in the coming hours," Rage said. "We shall fight the enemy wherever they are."

The extent of the withdrawal — or what it means — was not immediately clear.

Residents reported al-Shabab militia leaving their positions overnight but it was not clear if they had left the city.

Since it was born from the ruins of the Islamic Courts Union in 2007, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab has never abandoned the city entirely.

The Islamic Courts Union ruled the capital and much of the country's south and central regions for six months in 2006 until they were overrun by Ethiopian forces.

"We are verifying reports of a withdrawal," said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the 9,000 African Union peacekeeping forces in Mogadishu.

Somalia is in the grip of famine which has been at its most severe in the southern parts of Somalia held by al-Shabab.

The militia have denied some aid agencies access and said that the U.N. is exaggerating the humanitarian crisis.

However, al-Shabab has been unable to stem the flow of tens of thousands of hungry people moving out of their areas of control in search for food.

Somalia has had no functioning central government for 20 years.